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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

13. Political Parties

In a free society, differences of political sentiment result in different political parties. These sentiments resolve themselves naturally into two basic parties: the authoritarian (or monarchist, tory, etc.) that favors government that controls the people, and the democratic (or republican, liberal, etc.) that favors government controlled by the people. The body of the nation chooses a path that is mapped by one or the other of these parties.

"In every free and deliberating society, there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties, and violent dissensions and discords; and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter time." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1798. ME 10:45

"In an absolute government there can be no... equiponderant parties. The despot is the government. His power suppressing all opposition, maintains his ministers firm in their places. What he has contracted, therefore, through them, he has the power to observe with good faith; and he identifies his own honor and faith with that of his nation." --Thomas Jefferson to John Langdon, 1810. ME 12:377

"Warring against [the principles] of the people,... there is no length to which [the delusion of the people] may not be pushed by a party in possession of the revenues and the legal authorities of the United States, for a short time indeed, but yet long enough to admit much particular mischief. There is no event, therefore, however atrocious which may not be expected." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Smith, 1798. (*) ME 10:56

"It is the steady abuse of power in other governments which renders that of opposition always the popular party." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1818. FE 10:106

13.1 The Basic Differences Between Parties

"Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824. ME 16:73

"Both of our political parties, at least the honest portion of them, agree conscientiously in the same object: the public good; but they differ essentially in what they deem the means of promoting that good. One side believes it best done by one composition of the governing powers, the other by a different one. One fears most the ignorance of the people; the other the selfishness of rulers independent of them. Which is right, time and experience will prove. We think that one side of this experiment has been long enough tried and proved not to promote the good of the many, and that the other has not been fairly and sufficiently tried. Our opponents think the reverse. With whichever opinion the body of the nation concurs, that must prevail." --Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 1804. ME 11:52

"Men have differed in opinion and been divided into parties by these opinions from the first origin of societies, and in all governments where they have been permitted freely to think and to speak. The same political parties which now agitate the U.S. have existed through all time. Whether the power of the people or that of the [aristocracy] should prevail were questions which kept the states of Greece and Rome in eternal convulsions, as they now schismatize every people whose minds and mouths are not shut up by the gag of a despot. And in fact the terms of Whig and Tory belong to natural as well as to civil history. They denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:279

"The division into Whig and Tory is founded in the nature of man; the weakly and nerveless, the rich and the corrupt, seeing more safety and accessibility in a strong executive; the healthy, firm, and virtuous, feeling confidence in their physical and moral resources, and willing to part with only so much power as is necessary for their good government; and, therefore, to retain the rest in the hands of the many, the division will substantially be into Whig and Tory." --Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow, 1802. ME 10:310

"The parties of Whig and Tory are those of nature. They exist in all countries, whether called by these names or by those of Aristocrats and Democrats, Cote Droite and Cote Gauche, Ultras and Radicals, Serviles and Liberals. The sickly, weakly, timid man fears the people, and is a Tory by nature. The healthy, strong and bold cherishes them, and is formed a Whig by nature." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:492

"Nature has made some men monarchists and tories by their constitution, and some, of course, there always will be." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1817. ME 15:135

"The common division of Whig and Tory... is the most salutary of all divisions and ought, therefore, to be fostered instead of being amalgamated; for take away this, and some more dangerous principle of division will take its place." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1825. ME 16:96

"I consider the party division of Whig and Tory the most wholesome which can exist in any government, and well worthy of being nourished, to keep out those of a more dangerous character." --Thomas Jefferson to William T. Barry, 1822. ME 15:388

"To me... it appears that there have been differences of opinion and party differences, from the first establishment of government to the present day, and on the same question which now divides our own country; that these will continue through all future time; that every one takes his side in favor of the many, or of the few, according to his constitution, and the circumstances in which he is placed... that as we judge between the Claudii and the Gracchi, the Wentworths and the Hampdens of past ages, so of those among us whose names may happen to be remembered for awhile, the next generations will judge favorably or unfavorably according to the complexion of individual minds and the side they shall themselves have taken; that nothing new can be added to what has been said by others and will be said in every age in support of the conflicting opinions on government; and that wisdom and duty dictate an humble resignation to the verdict of our future peers." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:283

"Wherever there are men, there will be parties; and wherever there are free men they will make themselves heard. Those of firm health and spirits are unwilling to cede more of their liberty than is necessary to preserve order; those of feeble constitutions will wish to see one strong arm able to protect them from the many. These are the Whigs and Tories of nature. These mutual jealousies produce mutual security; and while the laws shall be obeyed, all will be safe. He alone is your enemy who disobeys them." --Thomas Jefferson: Misc. Notes, 1801? FE 8:1

"The Tories are for strengthening the Executive and General Government; the Whigs cherish the representative branch and the rights reserved by the States as the bulwark against consolidation, which must immediately generate monarchy." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:493

"I had always expected that when the republicans should have put down all things under their feet, they would schismatize among themselves. I always expected, too, that whatever names the parties might bear, the real division would be into moderate and ardent republicanism. In this division there is no great evil -- not even if the minority obtain the ascendency by the accession of federal votes to their candidate; because this gives us one shade only, instead of another, of republicanism. It is to be considered as apostasy only when they purchase the votes of federalists, with a participation in honor and power." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1807. ME 11:265

"The duty of an upright administration is to pursue its course steadily, to know nothing of these family dissensions, and to cherish the good principles of both parties." --Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, 1805. ME 11:71

13.2 The Utility of Party Divisions

"I am no believer in the amalgamation of parties, nor do I consider it as either desirable or useful for the public; but only that, like religious differences, a difference in politics should never be permitted to enter into social intercourse or to disturb its friendships, its charities or justice. In that form, they are censors of the conduct of each other and useful watchmen for the public." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824. ME 16:73

"It would not be for the public good to have [a majority in Congress of one party] greater [than] two to one." --Thomas Jefferson Joel Barlow, 1802. (*) ME 10:319

"A respectable minority [in Congress] is useful as censors." --Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow, 1802. ME 10:319

"[Those] States in which local discontents might engender a commencement of fermentation would be paralyzed and self-checked by that very division into parties into which we have fallen, into which all States must fall wherein men are at liberty to think, speak and act freely according to the diversities of their individual conformations, and which are, perhaps, essential to preserve the purity of the government by the censorship which these parties habitually exercise over each other." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:21

13.3 Maintaining Union Amid Party Differences

"Perhaps this party division is necessary to induce each to watch and delate to the people the proceedings of the other. But if on a temporary superiority of the one party the other is to resort to a scission of the Union, no federal government can ever exist." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1798. ME 10:45

"I can scarcely contemplate a more incalculable evil than the breaking of the Union into two or more parts." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:346

"If we keep together we shall be safe, and when error is so apparent as to become visible to the majority, they will correct it." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas W. Maury, 1816. ME 18:291

"Who can say what would be the evils of a scission, and when and where they would end? Better keep together as we are, haul off from Europe as soon as we can and from all attachments to any portions of it; and if they show their power just sufficiently to hoop us together, it will be the happiest situation in which we can exist." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1798. ME 10:46

13.4 Political Tolerance and Harmony

"The greatest good we can do our country is to heal its party divisions and make them one people." --Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, 1801. FE 8:76

"Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural Address, 1801. ME 3:318

"To restore... harmony,... to render us again one people acting as one nation should be the object of every man really a patriot." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas McKean, 1801. FE 8:78

"It will be a great blessing to our country if we can once more restore harmony and social love among its citizens. I confess, as to myself, it is almost the first object of my heart, and one to which I would sacrifice everything but principle." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1801. ME 10:253

"If we move in mass, be it ever so circuitously, we shall attain our object; but if we break into squads, everyone pursuing the path he thinks most direct, we become an easy conquest to those who can now barely hold us in check." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. ME 13:29

"If we schismatize on either men or measures, if we do not act in phalanx, as when we rescued [our country] from the satellites of monarchism, I will not say our party, the term is false and degrading, but our nation will be undone. For the republicans are the nation." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. ME 13:28

13.5 Limits to Party Loyalty

"I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson, 1789. ME 7:300

"Were parties here divided merely by a greediness for office, take a part with either would be unworthy of a reasonable or moral man." --Thomas Jefferson to William Branch Giles, 1795. ME 9:317

13.6 Substantial Differences of Principle

"Where the principle of difference [between political parties] is as substantial and as strongly pronounced as between the republicans and the monocrats of our country, I hold it as honorable to take a firm and decided part and as immoral to pursue a middle line, as between the parties of honest men and rogues, into which every country is divided." --Thomas Jefferson to William Branch Giles, 1795. ME 9:317

"That each party endeavors to get into the administration of the government and exclude the other from power is true, and may be stated as a motive of action: but this is only secondary; the primary motive being a real and radical difference of political principle. I sincerely wish our differences were but personally who should govern, and that the principles of our Constitution were those of both parties. Unfortunately, it is otherwise; and the question of preference between monarchy and republicanism, which has so long divided mankind elsewhere, threatens a permanent division here." --Thomas Jefferson to John Melish, 1813. ME 13:208

"The denunciation of the democratic societies, [whose avowed object is the nourishment of the republican principles of our Constitution,] is one of the extraordinary acts of boldness of which we have seen so many from the faction of monocrats,... [and is] an attack on the freedom of discussion, the freedom of writing, printing and publishing." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1794. ME 9:293

"I should suspect error where the [monocrats] found no fault. The buzzard feeds on carrion only." --Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806. (*) ME 11:115

"The consolidation of our fellow-citizens in general is the great object we ought to keep in view, and that being once obtained, while we associate with us in affairs, to a certain degree, the federal sect of republicans, we must strip of all the means of influence the... monocrats in every part of the Union." --Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, 1801. ME 10:263

"[Those] quondam leaders [who cover] under [a] mask... hearts devoted to monarchy... have a right to tolerance, but neither to confidence nor power." --Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, 1801. (*) FE 8:76

"Amiable monarchists are not safe subjects of republican confidence." --Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, 1801. ME 10:264

"In appointments to office the government refuses to know any difference between descriptions of republicans [as to their politics], all of whom are in principle, and co-operate, with the government." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1808. ME 12:159

13.7 Political Enemies

"I suppose, indeed, that in public life, a man whose political principles have any decided character and who has energy enough to give them effect must always expect to encounter political hostility from those of adverse principles." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard M. Johnson, 1808. ME 12:9

"Men of energy of character must have enemies; because there are two sides to every question, and taking one with decision, and acting on it with effect, those who take the other will of course be hostile in proportion as they feel that effect." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1817. ME 15:109

"Dr. Franklin had many political enemies, as every character must, which, with decision enough to have opinions, has energy and talent to give them effect on the feelings of the adversary opinion." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Walsh, 1818. ME 15:175

"It has been a source of great pain to me to have met with so many among [my] opponents who had not the liberality to distinguish between political and social opposition; who transferred at once to the person, the hatred they bore to his political opinions." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard M. Johnson, 1808. ME 12:9

"An enemy generally says and believes what he wishes." --Thomas Jefferson to C. W. F. Dumas, 1788. Papers, 12:695

"With those who wish to think amiss of me, I have learned to be perfectly indifferent; but where I know a mind to be ingenuous, and to need only truth to set it to rights, I cannot be as passive." --Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 1804. ME 11:49

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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